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The European Irishman

Independent Spirit

by Hubert Butler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 588 pp., $35.00

I grew up in the 1950s in Wexford, on the southeast coast of Ireland. It was a small town with a history. Here, in the twelfth century, a gang of Anglo-Norman robber barons, seeking land and Lebensraum in an as yet unplundered territory, had made the short sea-crossing from Wales and set up an enclave which they were to defend with unflinching tenacity in the face of an outraged but disorganized Irishry and a suspicious and jealous English king. So was inaugurated that connection between Britain and Ireland which was to bring eight hundred years of troubles to these islands, troubles that are with us to this day. There are historians who argue that, ironically, it was not greed that impelled Henry II of England to take control of Ireland—the English Pope Adrian IV had, with characteristic papal insouciance, “granted” the island to him in the bull Laudabiliter in 1155—but fear that the Norman lords would set up a power base on the other side of the Irish Sea from which to challenge his authority. Thus, stumblingly, does history blight the generations.

Every summer in that postwar decade of my childhood my family would decamp to the seaside resort of Rosslare, some ten miles south of Wexford, where we would spend a month or six weeks huddled in a rented wooden chalet consisting of two or three rooms, with scant bathing facilities and an outside lavatory (one such accommodation was a wheel-less railway carriage set down in a corner of a field: utter magic for a small boy). The Fifties were a straitened time in Ireland, as it was elsewhere in Europe, and we were lucky to be able to afford this annual holiday. In my memory of them these summer weeks are bathed in a golden light, the effect no doubt of lapsed time rather than the Irish climate. One event, however, generated a particular and inimitable glow. This was the Protestant Church of Ireland summer fête. It was held in a tussocky field adjoining a venerable and rather pretty stone church. Here, on trestle tables, would be displayed for sale the products of polite endeavor: homemade jam, pots of honey, bunches of vegetables, cakes, tarts, hand-embroidered table napkins, all laid out in cheerful, confident disorder.

I never missed a fête day. I would go there by myself, and tell no one where I had been. This secrecy was due partly to an unwillingness to share this magical event with siblings or friends, and partly to an obscure unease. As a child of the Catholic lower middle class, I regarded Protestants with a mixture of apprehensiveness and fascination. In those days, in our Republic, which was, as it still is, 95 percent Catholic, we were forbidden to enter a Protestant church under pain of unspecified consequences. It would have been possible, at our level of society, to go through an entire childhood without ever having met, knowingly, one of our “separated brethren.” But what splendid specimens they seemed to me, these brisk, equine ladies in their flowered frocks, and kindly-eyed gentlemen in brogues and “good” but threadbare tweeds, languidly celebrating their annual fête galante. I might have been among the gods. I imagined them, at day’s end, bumping in their shooting-brakes up the long avenues to their ivy-covered, many-windowed mansions, where already the servants—kinsmen and kinswomen of my parents—were lighting the candles and setting out the canopied dishes for dinner.

Afterward there would be port, and games of bridge, and desultory conversation by the fireside. Then one among them would rise and “retire to his study,” there to take up his pen and add another few effortless paragraphs to his journal, or write a witty letter to The Times, or finish off that never to be published essay on trout fishing, or the Gallipoli campaign, or the influence of the Brehon Laws on medieval Irish bardic poetry. And if I were back there now, in that lost Rosslare of my childhood, I could put a face to that imagined figure leaning at his lamplit desk. The face would be that of Hubert Butler.

This humane, elegant, and subtle writer was born in Kilkenny in 1900, and died there in 1991. His people had been part of the first wave of English settlers who arrived in Ireland after Henry II’s annexation. The Butlers were one of the leading Anglo-Irish families, mutating with time into the Dukes of Ormonde who maintained vast estates and built Georgian Dublin. Hubert Butler, although always quick to point out that his family was a very minor cadet branch of the dynasty, was proud of his name and all that it signified; he founded the Butler Society, and was an assiduous editor of the society’s journal until his death in 1991. Like many of his class, he was educated in England, at Charterhouse and Oxford. Returning to Ireland at the end of his college years, he worked in the Irish County Library Service, one of the great civilizing institutions of the new Free State of the 1920s. Later, in the Thirties, he traveled widely in Europe, and worked as a teacher of English in Egypt and Russia. In the mid-Thirties he spent three years in Yugoslavia on a scholarship from the London School of Slavonic Studies.

When his father died, in 1941, Hubert Butler returned to live in Maidenhall, the family’s modest but handsome Georgian house set amid the rich pasturelands of County Kilkenny. A few years later he revived the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, an influential group in Irish historical studies that had lapsed for half a century. He was a fine linguist, and translated Leonid Leonov’s The Thief (a perceptive essay on Leonov is included in Independent Spirit), and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a translation still regarded by many critics as one of the finest English versions of this play.

His main literary legacy, however, is the body of essays on a wide range of subjects, written over some sixty years for newspapers and magazines (although some pieces remained unpublished in his lifetime, and seem to have been written simply for the pleasure of the exercise) but not gathered into book form until 1985, when Escape from the Anthill, the first of four volumes, was published by the Lilliput Press in Dublin. For this endeavor, the world owes a debt of gratitude to Lilliput’s director, Antony Farrell, whose energy and enthusiasm spurred Butler to agree to the assembling of these wonderfully rich and stimulating collections, from which the essays in the anthology under review have been selected.

Hubert Butler was a very particular kind of Irishman. He liked to describe himself as a Protestant Republican, but the historian Roy Foster has suggested that a more accurate formulation would be “Ascendancy Nationalist” or “Anglo-Irish Nationalist” (the essays return again and again to the theme of nationalism as a positive force). He was also, as a writer and as a citizen, quintessentially European. In an elegantly Butlerian introduction to In the Land of Nod, the fourth, posthumous, Lilliput volume, Neal Ascherson writes:

Hubert Butler was what in Central Europe they call a feuilleton writer. The word has misleading echoes of leafy lightness and even weightlessness. But for a century and a half it has meant a special kind of intellectual journalism, witty and often angry, elegant but piercing, and revealing great learning lightly borne, interested in the “epiphanies” which make currents of social and political change visible through the lens of some small accident or absurdity.

The breadth of Butler’s interests and concerns is remarkable, even for a writer whose career spanned the greater part of this tumultuous century. So, as late as 1984, he is writing in fond detail about his house at Maidenhall and the “many beautiful little towns along the Nore,” while from forty years before is preserved a frank, racy, and startlingly evocative account of his time as a not very successful language teacher in Leningrad. “In the end,” he wrote, “I came to the conclusion that almost all those whom I was able to see constantly had obtained the consent of the GPU and were under obligation to report my movements.” Of the agent assigned to keep a “conscientious record of my unmemorable sayings and doings,” Butler writes:

He was, in fact, the ideal spy. It was a disinterested pleasure to him to gossip, and it was a bonus for him to feel patriotic. He never did us any harm. Indeed, hovering on the edge of our little group, he was a kind of insurance that we should not be molested. He liked his lessons and wished us well. He once publicly refuted a rival teacher’s allegation that I had “a terrible Irish accent.”

Butler’s travels take him from the Kilkenny of his childhood to China in the 1950s, from his years working on the literary magazine The Bell in Dublin in the 1940s to the right-to-life debates of 1980s America. Yet, as he declares in his introduction to Escape from the Anthill, reprinted here, “even when these essays appear to be about Russia or Greece or Spain or Yugoslavia, they are really about Ireland…. This focus for me has never varied.” Indeed, he states elsewhere, his focus is narrower still: “I have always believed that local history is more important than national history.”

This last is one of many variations on an abiding theme: the fatuousness of our modern-day concern for the universal at the expense of the particular:

Science has enormously extended the sphere of our responsibilities, while our consciences have remained the same size. Parochially minded people neglect their parishes to pronounce ignorantly about the universe, while the universalists are so conscious of the worldwide struggles of opposing philosophies that the rights and wrongs of any regional conflict dwindle to insignificance against a cosmic panorama. They feel that truth is in some way relative to orientation, and falsehood no more than a wrong adjustment, so that they can never say unequivocally, “That is a lie!” Like the needle of a compass at the North Pole, their moral judgment spins round and round, overwhelming them with information and telling them nothing at all.

However, he is conscious too of the dangers of blinkered parochialism. Perhaps the finest essay in this collection is “The Invader Wore Slippers,” written in 1950, when the tone of wartime propaganda still pervaded public life. Butler recalls how, during the war, “we in Ireland heard much of the jackboot and how we should be trampled beneath it if Britain’s protection failed us,” and how “our imagination, fed on the daily press, showed us a Technicolor picture of barbarity and heroism.”

We did not ask ourselves: “Supposing the invader wears not jackboots, but carpet slippers, or patent-leather pumps, how will I behave, and the respectable X’s, the patriotic Y’s and the pious Z’s?” How could we? The newspapers told us only about the jackboots.

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